Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The founding of the Natural Resources Defense Council signaled the start of a concerted effort to utilize U.S. law and the legal system to protect the nation’s environment and natural resources. The council remains one of the largest and most successful environmental groups in the world.

Summary of Event

The Johnson and Nixon administrations reflected the enhanced environmental awareness of the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s when the two cautiously began instituting federal environmental legislation. At the same time, they consolidated responsibilities within new agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The growing number of federal regulations and statutes over the subsequent decade represented a new species of national environmental legislation. Environmental organizations;Natural Resources Defense Council Natural Resources Defense Council Natural resources Conservation;organizations [kw]Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded (Feb., 1970) [kw]Council Is Founded, Natural Resources Defense (Feb., 1970) Environmental organizations;Natural Resources Defense Council Natural Resources Defense Council Natural resources Conservation;organizations [g]North America;Feb., 1970: Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded[10700] [g]United States;Feb., 1970: Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded[10700] [c]Natural resources;Feb., 1970: Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded[10700] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb., 1970: Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded[10700] [c]Environmental issues;Feb., 1970: Natural Resources Defense Council Is Founded[10700] Sive, David Ayres, Richard Speth, James Gustavus Adams, John (1933-    ) Bryson, John Duggan, Stephen Seymour, Whitney North, Jr.

Until the 1960’s, federal conservation policies—these were somewhat distinct in character from environmental policies—were implemented by the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Given the political pressures exerted by business interests, conservation groups, and bureaucrats who traditionally were associated with these services, federal environmental policies remained modest in scope and were often judged by competent observers to be poorly coordinated and largely ineffectual.

Significant environmental legislation resulted from the increasing effectiveness and broadened diversification of nationwide environmental organizations, as well as from the fresh emphasis some of them placed on creating legal departments or on being advised by legal and scientific professionals. The turn toward professionalized legal and scientific leadership by some environmentalists was designed partly to forestall or prompt revisions in public legislation and in private policies deemed hazardous to the environment. More positively, these organizations sought to advise, lobby, and otherwise influence both the public and private sectors to adopt well-drafted and effective environmental laws.

Incorporated in New York City in February, 1970, the National Resources Defense Council National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) epitomized the character of these new environmental organizations. The NRDC proposed to use the nation’s legal system to preserve natural resources, to monitor the activities of federal regulatory agencies charged with environmental duties, and to educate the public about the legal methods available for safeguarding their environment.

Founders of the NRDC drew both inspiration and instruction from the legal results of the Storm King controversy that erupted in New York State in the mid-1960’s. Located on the Hudson River’s west bank just north of West Point, the 1,355-foot Storm King Mountain had historically been a favored area for nature enthusiasts such as hikers, campers, and others, many of them aware that the Hudson’s natural beauty had for generations furnished subjects for major writers and artists. Thus, when Consolidated Edison proposed construction of a power-pumping station at Storm King Storm King power plant , there was an immediate outcry, which soon led to the creation of the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference (SHPC). Subsequent legal action brought by the SHPC against the Federal Power Commission Federal Power Commission resulted in a landmark 1966 decision by a U.S. court of appeals, which stated that lawsuits could be instituted to safeguard an area’s “aesthetic, conservational and recreational” values, and that in this instance Consolidated Edison Consolidated Edison would have to abandon its plans or find another site.

The SHPC’s principal attorney in the Storm King fight was David Sive, a New York lawyer who was fully aware of the powerful precedent granted environmentalists by the Storm King decision. Sive helped found the NRDC four years later. He was joined by others, among them a group of outstanding Yale University Law School students who had been brought together during the late 1960’s by James Gustavus Speth—at that time president of the World Resources Institute—to explore the potentialities of the new field of environmental law. By 1969, Speth’s Yale group, which included John Bryson and Richard Ayres, had formed the Legal Environmental Assistance Fund Legal Environmental Assistance Fund (LEAF) and had begun seeking support from the Ford Foundation’s natural resources and environment division.

Eager to contribute to the expansion of environmental law, officials of the Ford Foundation in 1969 brought two prominent Republican Wall Street lawyers, Whitney North Seymour, Jr., and Stephen Duggan, together with Speth’s LEAF lawyers. Nearly all of these individuals perceived environmental problems to be part of the broader spectrum of national problems, which included racial and civil-rights issues, antinuclear and antiwar campaigns, diminishing natural resources and pollution, growing urban blight and crime, excessive governmental bureaucratization, and—not least—struggles against irresponsible corporate power, influence, and greed. The political views of these lawyers appeared however to range from conservative to radical.

The NRDC commenced functioning when Seymour, Duggan, and Sive, among others, hired former assistant U.S. attorney John Adams as their first staff member. To secure funding from the Ford Foundation, the NRDC was required to incorporate the Speth-LEAF group, which caused some tensions but was swiftly accomplished. Whereas other reform-oriented American organizations—such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club—had, or soon would establish, legal-defense adjuncts, the NRDC in 1970 was unique in being composed of professional lawyers and scientists and in concentrating on matters pertaining to both the public and the private aspects of environmental law. Rather than competing with other environmental defense divisions, the NRDC intended to serve as their legal aide.


By the early twenty-first century, the NRDC had a membership of one million and an annual budget of about $55 million. It boasted a staff of more than two hundred. Moreover, it had developed a sweeping agenda in its attempt by skillful deployment of legal resources to fashion a world in which human beings could live harmoniously with their environment. The organization championed legislation for clean air, clean water, and pure foods. It argued to protect old- as well as new-growth national forests from logging depredations, and it labored to protect endangered species of wildlife.

The NRDC advocated the phase-out of leaded gasoline as well as the reduction of tailpipe emissions, battled to safeguard coastal California and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil company drilling, and struggled to curtail pollution of the environment by toxic wastes, pesticides, and chlorofluorocarbons. These and related efforts were consolidated as of 2004 under eight major programs: wildlands, air and energy/global warming, water and oceans, environment and health, international, nuclear, cities, and education and activism/legislation.

As concepts of what constituted the environment expanded through the 1970’s and 1990’s, the NRDC developed an eclectic agenda that plunged it deeply into Washington, D.C., policy making; in fact, the agenda soon became international in scope. Shortly after its incorporation, for example, NRDC lawyers, breaking new ground professionally, lobbied vigorously for effective implementation of the Clean Air Act. (Years later, they fought hard for passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act.) One authority noted that the NRDC’s Ayres filed thirty-five of the initial forty lawsuits brought in relation to the 1970 Clean Air Act amendments. Likewise, they soon joined a coalition of lobbyists advocating enactment of the Clean Water Act while filing additional lawsuits against strip miners and supporters of the Alaska lands bill. Such activities were only a beginning.

The increasing technical complexity of environmental legislation also drew NRDC leaders into policy-making areas of government, both nationally and internationally. Through extensive activities such as these, the NRDC contributed significantly to the political forces that converted Washington politicians and policy makers, at least nominally, to environmentalism. Liberal congressmember Gaylord Nelson noted, for example, that while in the 1960’s as few as a dozen congressmembers could be identified as environmentalists, there were more than two hundred who claimed that designation in 1990. Adams further observed that while in 1970 there had been no environmental laws, by 1990 there were forty or fifty federal statutes.

One of the NRDC’s original objectives—the creation of a distinct specialty known as environmental law—was handsomely attained. In 1971, a summary of environmental laws recorded in the Environmental Law Reporter required only thirty-three pages, whereas in the early twenty-first century hundreds of pages were required.

One of the NRDC’s frequently used approaches to resolving environmental problems involved close collaboration with offending industries or agencies. Such tactics often proved effective, as when the NRDC and the Sierra Club reached agreement with General Motors on reducing the corporation’s pollution. Similar agreements were struck with representatives from the oil industry on a reformulation of gasoline to reduce toxic and smog-producing tailpipe emissions, an agreement ratified by the EPA in 1993 as an enforceable regulation.

Successes achieved along these lines, not only by the NRDC but also other environmental groups, became more frequent: Groups reached high levels of professionalization and industries sought cost-effective and politically feasible ways to skirt expensive litigation in connection with their environmental responsibilities. Whatever their efficiency, however, such collaborative strategies provoked much criticism from grassroots environmentalists and from members of the scientific community.

The National Wildlife Federation, for example, drew attention to the NRDC’s effort to design an environmental plan for Conoco’s Ecuadoran oil-drilling operations in a tropical rainforest located in an Ecuadoran national park. Since Conoco could not be prevented from drilling at those sites, NRDC believed that environmentalists’ best hope lay in attempting to control the oil company’s activities. Critics, however, questioned both the wisdom and the effectiveness of an approach that assumed that offending industries could be appealed to on the basis of their economic self-interest.

Notwithstanding its failures and its misjudgments, however, the NRDC during the first twenty years of its existence made unprecedented contributions to the evolution of environmental law. It also transformed the composition, character, and operations of environmental organizations. Environmental organizations;Natural Resources Defense Council Natural Resources Defense Council Natural resources Conservation;organizations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cousteau, Jacques-Yves. The Cousteau Almanac: An Inventory of Life on Our Water Planet. Garden City, N.Y.: Dolphin Books, 1981. A thorough introduction to the range and depth of environmental organizations and objectives, thus providing a context for the NRDC. Many illustrations and tables and an excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, J. Clarence, III, and Barbara Davies. The Politics of Pollution. Racine, Wis.: Western, 1975. A brief, clear, excellent study that analyzes the behind-the-scenes maneuvering needed to influence environmental legislation, rulings, and regulations. Claims that antipollution and other environmental legislation was generally ineffective, and supports the NRDC’s goal of using professional legal talent in drafting and implementing such legislation. Includes notes, bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Robert. Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. A concise survey of transformations within the environmental movement from its inception to the early 1990’s. Excellent discussion of pivotal environmental legislation and of the development of the NRDC and other organizations. Includes chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: 1955-1985. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A well-written study by a respected historian. Discusses attitude changes that led to the transition from the conservation movement to the environmental movement. Traces the political history of modern environmentalism, with emphasis on power struggles to protect species and wilderness areas, regulate harmful pollutants and wastes, and preserve the biosphere. Includes notes, a good bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazarus, Richard J. The Making of Environmental Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. An excellent source for studying the history of environmental law and environmental protection in the United States. Includes references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner, and Douglas S. Kenney, eds. Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002. An essential resource on environmental law, recommended by the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shabecoff, Philip. A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. A clearly written and useful study of the American environmental movement. Emphasizes social factors such as mass movements to suburbs; increased camping, hiking, and recreational travel; and the influence of television on the emergence and evolution of environmental groups. Includes a good discussion of the NRDC, chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Speth, James Gustavus. Protecting Our Environment. Washington, D.C.: Center for National Policy, 1985. A brief outline of a new environmental agenda for the 1980’s. Written by one of the founders of the NRDC. No notes, bibliography, or index.

Truman Creates the Bureau of Land Management

Nature Conservancy Is Founded

Brower Becomes Executive Director of the Sierra Club

Congress Passes the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act

Udall Publishes The Quiet Crisis

Lady Bird Johnson Begins the America Beautiful Program

Congress Establishes the Public Land Law Review Commission

Environmental Defense Fund Is Founded

Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trails System Acts Are Passed

Congress Approves the Mining and Minerals Act

Categories: History